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May 8, 2009

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III1111 " - L I _m .illllllnlJlllil PAGE 8A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MAY 8, 2009 Learning to love yeshiva learning, egalitarian style By Amy Klein SEATTLE (JTA) It'snear- ly 11 o'clock on a Saturday night in the octagon-shaped sanctuary of this city's Con- gregation Beth Shalom. and some 100 people are huddled around dark wood tables por- ing over pages of complicated Jewish texts: the Talmud. its commentaries, rabbinical exegesis and modern-day interpretations. It's no yeshiva scene from "Yentl." Instead of bearded men clad in black suits reminiscent of 18th century Europe, here there are men and women of all ages wearing everyday clothes and studying Jewish texts directly, some for the first time. Yeshiva-style learning, with its chevruta partner study and dialectic debate. has long been a mainstay of the Orthodox community, even trickling out of the clas- sic yeshiva setting to more informal environments such as synagogue programs and yearlong post-high school seminaries in Israel. But recently Jews of all denominations and ages, who once connected to Juda- ism by attending synagogue, celebrating holidays and send- ing their children to Hebrew school, have begun to yearn for something more: studying Jewish texts, yeshiva-style, but without the traditional yeshiva. Now a plethora of programs across the country Hart- B'nai Mitzvah Ethan Josef Danish. son of Helen Danish of Orlando, Fla.. and Henry Markand RhondaAnnette Danish of Oviedo, Fla., will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah on May 16, 2009 at Temple Israel in Winter Springs, Fla. Ethan is in the sev- enth grade at Hebrew Day School's Selznick Middle School where he is involved in the school's news crew. His hobbies and interests include computers, video games, science experiments, bike riding and skating. Sharing in the family's simcha will be grandparents Michael and Bettye Danish of Aberdeen, Md., Dan and Peggy Nix of Mims, Fla., and David and Mavis McDuffie of Orlando; sister Anna Danish; step-sister Michaela Shimer; and step-brothers Chris Shimer and Jacob Shimer, and family and friends from around the country. Alec Reed Garfinkel, son of Dr. Bobby and Jo Ann Garfinkel of Long- wood, Fla., will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah on Saturday, May 16, 2009 at Congregation Ohev Shalom. Alec, a seventh grader at Markham Woods Middle School. enjoys basketball, tennis and skiing. Sharing in the fam- ily's simcha will be Alec's brother, Blake, and sisters, Chloe and Olivia; grandparents, Myrnaand Marvin New- man of Heathrow, Fla., and Anita and Sidney Garfinkel of Jacksonville, Fla. c00e/A; J00rerw1?'z Seth Herwitz, son of Lisa and Larry Herwitz of Casselberry,, Fla., will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah on Saturday, May 16, 2009 at Congregation Beth Am in Longwood. Seth is in the seventh grade at South Seminole Middle School. where he is on the honor roll and plays trumpet with the symphonic band. He also enjoys computers, video games, swimming and Boy Scouts, where he has attained the rank of First Class. He is looking forward to becoming an Eagle Scout. He is also looking forward to traveling to Israel this summer with his Beth Am family. Sharing in the family's simcha will be Seth's sister, Lauren; grandparents, Gerald and Lois Gordon from Syracuse, N.Y.; grandmother, Esther Herwitz from Fort Myers; and aunts, uncles and cousins from Tampa and Michigan. man, Limmud. Melton and Wexner, as they are informally known offer text-based learning m a pluralistic and non-denominational envi- ronment. Some are longer programs, such as the Florence Melton's Adult Mini-Schools two-year curriculum. Others. like the Shalom Hartman Institute's Global Beit Midrash. offer a monthly study at 14 locations 'in the United States Some programs, like the popular Limmud, which began in England 25 years ago and crossed the Atlantic in 2005. offer four-day intensive ses- sions that run the gamut from text-based study to lectures on meditation and kabbalah. At Seattle's Conservative Beth Shalom congregation, it's a one-shot'deal: a full Shabbat weekend of intense community study meant to submerge participants in a yeshiva environment and turn them onto learning. "Are non-Jews created in the image of God?" Rabbi Ethan Tucker asks the late- night Seattle audience. Tucker. he co-founder of Mechon Hadar, a full-time egalitarian, non-accredited yeshiva in New York, has set up this "Beth Shalom Yeshiva Experience" with the synagogue's rabbi, Jill Borodin. He is introducing the evening program of self-study, "Grappling with Troubling Texts: Rabbi Yisrael Lifshitz's Struggle with Universalism and Chauvinism," a nine-page handout he prepared with Sara Labaton, another Hadar faculty member who came to Seattle for the teaching weekend. Gathered in groups of five or six, the Beth Shalom partici- pants read through the pages of Mishnah, Talmud and com- mentaries from the medieval commentator Rashi and the 19th century Rabbi Lifshitz trying to decipher texts. The question of the evening is whether the non-Jews can be called "adam." which gen- erally means human being, but in this case might mean children of the biblical Adam. "Adam is particular to Jews because they, like Adam, were born into an adult relation- ship they were given the law rather than struggling by themselves" says Diane Douglas, one of the five people reading the text aloud in a group. "Gentiles had to make it on their own because they weren't given this on their own." she adds. trying to understand the texts. "This name adam is only ap- "propriate for Israel." MariJyn Meyer says. The group reads aloud more texts, translated into the English. and for the next hour ponder what exactly the rab- bis meant when they tried to distinguish Jews from gentiles and what it could mean today. "It seems he wants everyone to be created in the divine image, but he wants the term 'adam' to be applied to just Jews," says Steve Perlmutter, Douglas' husband. "He [Rabbi Lifshitz] defines it as Jews got Revelation and non-Jews did not," Douglas says, "but I don't know how many people today would be comfortable with that expla- nation." The comfort level of those Morris Malakoff Participants in the Beth Shalom Yeshiva Experience weekend in Seattle broke up into small groups to learn. studying varies, both in deci- J[erusalem, and study texts she recalls. "I had never seen " " i " phermgthecomplextextsand n the]r own, chevruta style. If from that perspect ve. understanding the broader Then they ask questions via Apter also enjoys learning implications. And although Tucker wraps up the study session ("'Adam' doesn't mean human being, but who experi- ences the mode of Adam") the bigger question is whether people who are new to Torah study should learn such com- plex and problematic texts. "I always come to those dif- ficult textwith apprehension. You always lose some people when you do hard-hitting top- ics," Tucker says later. But that won't stop him from teaching those topics. "Overwhelmingly, those are the conversations that people want to have," he says, referring to issues like relating to non-Jews or keeping kosher or gender issues, which were all topics of discussion over the weekend. "Those are things on peoples' mind, so you can either dumb it down or paint it pastels, or you can actually go to knotty issues that form Jewish identity." While some are bothered by the content, they appreciate that they are getting to learn such subjects. "I'm at a point in my life that when I learn something that challenges what I think, I wonder if there is something I can learn from it." says Jim Mathieu, a non-Jew who is married to a Jewish woman and raises his children Jewish. He is interested in learning more about the conversion process. "What does it mean to study Talmud and study Torah?" he asks. "I haven't really been exposed to that process." So even when difficult topics arise, such as Jew vs. non-Jew, Mathieu wants to understand the intent. "Even if I'm uncomfortable with it, I may see wisdom in it," he says. While traditional yeshivas may teach years of non-prac- tical topics, such as Talmudic tractates about sacrifices or other obsolete rituals, most of these plura!istic programs focus on timelier topics. At the Hartman's Global Beit Midrash. which gathers monthly via videoconfer- ence at 14 North American locations, this year's topics include "Who is a Jew: Ques- tions of Ethnicity, Philosophy and Solidarity" and "The Boundaries of Membership: The Jewish Outsider." In these sessions, too, participants gather while a lecture is delivered by a teacher at the institute in videoconference--students in Washington, for example, can hear students in Los Angeles. Although the video is grainy and the sound perhaps 30 seconds behind real time, the participants are still con- nected. "It creates a virtual com- munity of 300 people learning ogether," says Rabbi Alfredo orodowski, dxecutive direc- or oftheAmerican Friends of he Hartman Institute. The Hartman lectures, like he one in Seattle. sometimes ',nd inconclusively. "We specialize in a plural- stic approach--we are not oing to tell you what Judaism ays," Borodowski says. Hartman, like many of the lew yeshiva-style learning rograms, does not offer an vert ideology. "We give a broad perspec- ive, present the partici- )ants with different points of ,iew--all within the Jewish msitionmin order to gener- Lte relevant discussions," 3orodowski says. And although one might mt leave a Hartman lecture vith a clear answer on "Who is I Jew" theway one might af- r leaving a more traditional ture "manypeoplewanta ore sophisticated and more en-minded, pluralistic approach," he says. "And we believe that'swhat Judaism is: a tradition that's based upon debate of different approaches. People appreciate and grow from that. "This is not for everyone some people say, 'Tell me what Judaism says.' But this is not what we do." Many students appreci- ate the approach, especially those from a more traditional upbringing. "Coming from my back- ground, it was an eye opener to know that there are dif- ferent ways of looking at things still based on halachah [Jewisti Law]" says Elaine Apter. who studied the Melton Mini-School curriculum in Rockland County, N.Y.. from 2005 to 2007. Apter. who was raised Or- thodox and is now Conserva- tive, likes to understand the context of the laws. "We were learning about ketubot [Jewish marriage certificates[ and I said, 'It's such a sexist thing!' but the rabbi explained that at the time it was the most progres- sive document in the world," directly from the text, which she hadn't, for the most part. at a girls' yeshiva high school in the 1960s. "I love to study this way," she says. "It's a puzzle which I can make the connections and see how they got from one place to another." That would have made Florence Melton proud. As a longtime supporter of Jewish education, Melton worried about the state of Jewish education. "Unless the parents of these children are educated themselves, they won't be able to be Jewish in any way" was Melton's thinking, according to Judy Mars Kupchan, direc- tor of the Melton Mini-Schools of North America. Melton persisted through some initial resistance, and through her husband Sam's connections at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in 1986 she began a pilot pro- gram with three sites in North America. Melton's programs are now held at 62 locations in North America. "It's fascinating to look at her original proposal so many of the things she be- gan so many years ago have come to fruition," said Kup- chan, noting the tremendous growth and interest over the last decade. "I attribute it to a strong interest of searching that adults have they want to understandwhat part Juda- ism plays in their lives. They are on a Jewish journey." For some. that journey takes place over a two-year period. For others, like those at Beth Shalom. it may start with only a weekend. "How can we capture the ethos of the yeshiva experi- ence?" Tucker asks, acknowl- edging that it cannot be done in 48 hours. "But you can empower people to enter a certain conversation but not give them all the skills." Tucker hopes the weekend participants will continue learning at the synagogue's learning program, which 100 people attend throughout the week. But for the big picture, he hopes that programs like this are not a one-shot deal, "Our dream is that just like you can find a minyan on every corner, you can find those Jewish conversations wherever you go," he says. "We'd like to ignite a passion for Jewish learning to be the center of our lives."